||Whether designing store interiors for Calvin Klein, building a beach house in the Caribbean, or renovating a derelict community center that will become Yale University's new School of Art, Deborah Berke's work is influenced by her sensitivity to the everyday environment and characterized by her real affection for ordinary materials. More likely to rhapsodize over a sheet of galvanized steel than a wall of marble, she also understands that buildings not only engage the people who use them, but everyone who passes them in the street.
Deborah is a populist with a highly refined sense of what is and what can be elegant, and a minimalist who can't help but lavish attention on detail. Of course, these contradictions are what make her one of the most interesting architects at work today.
We recently met with Deborah in her appropriately austere Chelsea office, and caught up on all her latest projects. A new book, Architecture of the Everyday (Princeton Architectural Press), a collection of essays she compiled with Steven Harris, has just been published.
PETER: Nobody ever really asks about your influences.
DEBORAH: That's true, and I often wonder why. My influences come from two very opposite points. One is my middle class background and the landscape of my youth, the repetitive normalcy of the strip shopping that was built in the '20s, '30s and '40s, as opposed to the mall. And the small single-family houses on small lots, all down the street. Houses built with post-war enthusiasm, but with modesty, where people were thrilled to get out of tight urban conditions and have four sides of a building that were all their own.
PETER: And do you actually have a positive experience of that as a lived environment?
DEBORAH: I absolutely do. I think it is unfairly rejected now by people who call it suburbia without understanding that there are degrees of suburbia, some of which are successful and some of which are purely grotesque. And by those who are fleeing it for the ever-bigger, ever-more ostentatious, and don't appreciate the values embodied in modesty.
PETER: And the second, opposing influence?
DEBORAH: Well, what's more expected of an architect, which is, whose work do I look at? I used to always say the Shakers, but I'm so tired of that. My model, when I go to the shelves and pull a book down is Saarinen, both Saarinens.
PETER: Tell me about that.
DEBORAH: I think Saarinen, the younger in particular, was what I call a regional modernist. And when you look closely at his work, as diverse as it might be, you realize there's a constant thread, which is the quality of the craft, and a kind-hearted contextualism: "Here's where I am; here's how they made stuff; and how do I, with my modern materials and contemporary sensibility, participate in this visual environment?" I think it's great.
PETER: And that's what you think true contextualism should be?
PETER: A subjective or poetic interpretation of the context around?
DEBORAH: That's said probably more elegantly than I could have said it.
PETER: When I look at your work over the years, I think a lot about Aldo Rossi. And having lived in one of your houses, I think a lot about Lutchins as well.
DEBORAH: What I love about Lutchins is the early, more vernacular stuff. I hesitate to use the word "vernacular" these days, because people associate it with cloying imagery. But genuine vernacular, like Lutchins' early stuff, is brilliant and sensitive, and settled into the land happily.
PETER: Sometimes with your work, I think of it as a little less settled, that it actually has a geometry that's very severe, minimal and rigorous, which I also associate with Lutchins.
DEBORAH: I guess I value asymmetry much more, and at all scales, both local asymmetry and a grand planning asymmetry. Lutchins uses symmetry as a compositional device, and I tend to use asymmetry.
PETER: And do you ever think about Rossi?
DEBORAH: I adore Rossi. And the house I've done in Anguilla is certainly in many ways inspired by Rossi. But I think Rossi redux, Rossi as spread around America, tends to look like cheap fake stucco on bad strip buildings.
PETER: But isn't the point about Rossi's built work its relationship to the Italian vernacular, which might be how you're trying to work with the bare bones of the vernacular yourself?
DEBORAH: Absolutely. But when you take that stuff to Southern Florida, it fails. We understand Rossi in the context of Italy. I like to think my work has that same reductive attitude towards the American vernacular.
PETER: Have you developed a definition of the vernacular? And can you tell us why you think people should consider it?
DEBORAH: This really gets into what the book is about. And it is one of the reasons we replaced "vernacular" with "everyday" in the title.
PETER: Oh, you did?
DEBORAH: Yes, and it's because Disney and Bob Stern have essentially taken the word "vernacular" away from us, so that it has unfortunate overtones of cloying nostalgia, as opposed to a genuine toughness that you find out in the landscape. Does the word "vernacular" mean some lousy Victorian trim from Home Depot? It shouldn't. But don't you sense that "vernacular" is a word that's now debased?
PETER: Not necessarily. I always thought the source of the vernacular was in something like Seaside in the desire of architects not to seek high art models, but rather, more populist models.
DEBORAH: That's what it should be. But Seaside took those models which were simple buildings built by people themselves not people with money or pretensions and re-packaged them into something well-to-do people buy in very exclusive resort communities. And that has undermined the meaning of the vernacular.
PETER: So what's your relationship between that and what you do? Because anybody who commissions a building has to be well-to-do.
DEBORAH: I think the difference is in levels of pretension and levels of ostentation. (laughs) I think a certain type of privilege in this country looks for anonymity. And in the most reduced version of the vernacular, they find the kind of composition and formal device that's invisible to those who don't know to look for it, and highly visible to those who know it's there. So the anonymity is maintained.
PETER: You could say that Roy Lichtenstein wanted to look at comic strips as opposed to European modernism, and for him that must have had an intuitive attraction. And I'm wondering, is it more fun for you to look at what we think of as an existing vernacular or anonymous building, than to look at Mies or Le Corbusier?
DEBORAH: Yes. This stuff is just gutsy and dirty, and I like those things better. Maybe that gets back to my background in Queens.
PETER: And is there more randomness in it? Is it a less-controlled architecture?
DEBORAH: Genuine randomness, as opposed to applied randomness? Absolutely. And a naivetÚ and expediency perhaps. Because when you look at the vernacular, or the everyday, you look at it in a multiple of scales. One is the enormous scale of scattershot planning, or just how the building lands on its site in relation to its neighbors. But there's also the scale of getting way down to detail how that nasty garage door slides down between the windows. Or how the two pieces of metal siding bump together. That stuff is so exquisite to my perverse eye because I think the solutions are figured in an expedient fashion, not belabored on a drawing board.
PETER: Now, in the middle of everything you're doing, and your practice has grown considerably in the last few years, you decided to edit a book. What compelled you at this point?
DEBORAH: I did the book with a dear friend and Yale colleague, Steve Harris. We would commute to New Haven, and on our rides we'd talk about the landscape as it went by, and its transformation over the ten years that we have done this commute together. It just seemed as though there were a lot of people working around this particular subject, but nobody had tried to gather it in a lump and say, "This is a moment in the evolution of a position or a place or a way of thinking." That's what our book is. It captures a moment in the evolution of a philosophy.
PETER: And what did you decide to say in the book?
DEBORAH: In the earliest stage of putting the book together, I asked myself, "Why are we doing this?" And I ended up making a list, by sitting at my kitchen table, of the things that I thought that everyday architecture was.
PETER: Now, the first one on the list is, "Architecture of the Everyday may be banal and common."
DEBORAH: Maybe what's everyday about my non-manifesto is that it doesn't say that the architecture of the everyday must be banal and common. It says it may be banal and common. It may be banal and it may be crude. It may be sensual. It may actually be vulgar. But there is one thing that the architecture of the everyday is, and it is built. And I think this is the moment where it's not a paper architecture and it's not a computer-generated architecture it's buildings and it's real.
PETER: You know, I sometimes think that practice gets ahead of ideology. In other words, you're doing what you have to do, and your manifesto is a reflection of what you already have done. But in terms of those basic class issues, as you're working for clients who are more and more wealthy, the houses are bigger and more expensive. It seems to be a moment of transition.
DEBORAH: For me it's both a moment of transition and it's amusingly ironic. As you're sitting here saying this, I'm half smiling because I recognize that anyone who's critical of me will say, "She's a hypocrite. She says she's into the everyday, but she's out there building houses for rich people on remote Caribbean islands." But I am an architect. I like to build things. And if those are the opportunities presented to me, I'm not going to deny them. But I am going to try to bring to these projects what I believe is an appropriate degree of understatement and modesty, which may be absurd in the context of an 8-bedroom house in the Caribbean.
PETER: Would you ever turn something down?
DEBORAH: Well, there's also a moment when I can say to someone who comes to me for a project, "No, I will not build a 15,000-square foot house. I think that's obscene and unnecessary. If you want me to build you a 6,000-square foot house with all the requisite Greenwich rooms the billiard room, the this and that rooms yes, I can do that if I think it's within the realm of the tasteful and appropriate."
PETER: I've seen construction photos of the house you're building in Anguilla, and, ideology aside, it sure looked like Deborah Berke to me. But Deborah Berke doing a different scale of performance. What I saw was an element of exoticism, and a certain Moorish reference. But what connected it to all your other work was a real emphasis on a visual precision and minimalism of means.
DEBORAH: The house raised a question: What do you build in a hot climate? And if you're looking for some inspirational sources, are you going to do and when I heard this I almost fell off my chair "Florida picturesque," some bogus rendition of Spanish, but with central air conditioning? Well, no. In the Caribbean, I don't think you do that. There are certain clues given to you about a hot climate. Sheltered spaces, deep cut-outs, thick walls, light surfaces which leads you to Morocco perhaps, as a place to look for compositional ideas. I believe in the social engagement of architecture, but I care a lot about composition as well. And much of this house is a compositional exercise that satisfies the clients and satisfies my severe streak.
PETER: It is severe, but in the photos that I saw, the house also struck me as playful.
DEBORAH: I don't think any one object is particularly playful, but since there are many of them, their relationship to each other is playful. They're scattered on a site and they take advantage of the topography the site offered, and the way they bump up against each other some actually touch and engage in the spaces they make between them that's really playful.
PETER: Are there any other residential projects that are stretching what you're doing in one direction or another?
DEBORAH: We just finished a project in Greenwich, and that's why I'm laughing about Greenwich home to the obscenely oversized house. But mine was, especially relative to its neighbors, modest and quite stark. It was a house where my favorite moments have to do with things like the location of down spouts relative to window trim. But it's different from my previous work. It's much more expensive, for much richer people. So although to look at them you can't tell, the materials are super-expensive. Like zinc. Zinc down spouts, zinc gutters. Custom-milled clapboard that looks like regular clapboard. I may be betraying my own values in doing this, but I certainly had a glorious time.
PETER: Well, I'm a little less moralistic about the role of the architect than you are. But if there is a certain degree of tension for you about these things, do you see yourself moving away from domestic architecture? That's another issue in your work, that you started as somebody who did houses.
DEBORAH: Because that was the opportunity that was presented. But I am very intentionally getting into small-scale institutional work and some retail work. The retail work subsidizes everything else. And that's great, and I'm into that up front. The institutional work fascinates me because there's a different kind of program, a different kind of user, and the opportunity to work with materials and scales that residential just doesn't lend itself to.
PETER: One of your early forays it's halfway between commercial and institutional is the space on Washington Street.
PETER: Which I don't think a lot of people know you did.
DEBORAH: That's true, although I think the aesthetics of that and the whole attitude about material is directly consistent with everything I've done.
PETER: Oh, it's super vernacular. And everything was very low-budget, but elegant.
DEBORAH: Right. That project was my introduction into the world of fashion, visual and graphic design people in New York. And that led to other work, like Fabian Barron's offices. Industria was the beginning of that.
PETER: As a piece of built architecture it's been super-successful. People do a lot there. There are always parties and shoots. So whatever you built seemed to have worked.
DEBORAH: I think it worked really well. Although those projects have a half-life built into them, so no matter how great the architecture, it will eventually be superseded by the next chic place. But even defined in those terms, Industria has had a long life in the chic world.
PETER: The last time I was in there I went to the men's room and it was amazing. All the fixtures were like, super, super from the factory. It was almost disorienting. Just the opposite of going into the Royalton.
DEBORAH: Don't you love that sink? That really long trough? That's from the very last page of the American Standard catalogue, where they have what remains of the industrial stuff they've produced. I love those things.
PETER: The stalls were put together in a really weird way. Do you remember?
DEBORAH: Oh, absolutely. We had to get the manufacturer to undo their system, which was to make those stalls look vastly more elegant than they are, where they paint them these sexy colors and pretend they go together blindly. And we said, "No, no, we don't want any of those details. We want these really exposed, chunky, do-it-all connectors, and no paint on them." So it was a custom order that actually required them to stop way early in their process and just ship it to us as it was.
PETER: And that's an intervention in the manufacturing process to bring it closer to your ideology?
PETER: Now, I don't know that much about the CK stores you've done, but how do you go about approaching a design problem like that?
DEBORAH: We're done with our work for Calvin, but that was a lot of fun. There were quite a few in Asia, and big ones in Milan and London. Calvin Klein Inc. sort of rolls these things out all over the world, in malls, in department stores, on main shopping streets.
What we did is give them an image for CK, which I think was kind of floundering between jeans which had established one market and his high-end couture. The high-end image is typified by John Paulson's work. In his minimalism, every joint is invisible, every connection is neutral. And I'd say that my minimalism is a different flavor, like a chunky Ben & Jerry's flavor, where every joint is articulated, every material is expressed. So that when the tables go together, you see that glass fits smack onto the steel, and the wood goes plop onto the steel. We essentially worked on those designs with Calvin and the people up there. They liked them, they bought it, both literally and metaphorically. We did a couple of key stores for them and now we're done.
PETER: Sounds like fun.
DEBORAH: That's the only kind of engagement I think I'd like to have with retail design. Get in the good design/image part of it, and then get out.
PETER: So tell us what you're doing now at Yale?
DEBORAH: The art school at Yale, which has for 25 years shared Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building with the architecture school, is getting a building of its own.
DEBORAH: Very exciting for the architecture students, too. They'll have a lot more space and even, in some sort of strange justice, get to stay in the Paul Rudolph building. It's going to be restored to its original condition.
PETER: I kind of like it.
DEBORAH: We'll see how it works when they're in there using it as it was originally intended. But the building that's going to become the art school is a the old Jewish Community Center that was abandoned ten years ago. The building was bought by a developer and left to rot. It's in very bad shape. Drug addicts tore out all the plumbing and flashing, and water came down on the inside. So there's not much salvageable. The front facade is by Louis Kahn.
The building is approximately 70,000 square feet and to fit the program of the school, we need to add about another 25,000 square feet. So part of it is about making this dense, thick, shoe box of a building appropriate for art, because there's a middle area that doesn't get light. So what do you do about that? And how do you add on to a building that has a Louis Kahn facade?
PETER: For me as an artist and former art student, I'm wondering what your thoughts are about the division of space inside?
DEBORAH: That's a good question and it also relates to something that is difficult about this project. Artists and architects tend to be most at home in found conditions. So it is extremely difficult to build space for their use because it becomes either too prescriptive or too limiting.
Our initial tack in this building, which has a swimming pool and handball courts, a gymnasium, rooms for religious training, all the things you find in a community center, was to keep as many of those spaces intact as the condition of the building would allow. So that you would have a sense of being in a space that you had taken over, and adjusted for your use as opposed to a space built specifically for your use, which I think dampens the creative spirit. The quirkiness is all on the inside, like the handball courts and the way the locker rooms are connected to the swimming pool area. The attitude we're bringing to the building is that quirks are opportunities.
PETER: So it's not going to be transformed into a crystalline, white interior?
DEBORAH: Hopefully not.
PETER: In a way, it sounds like a lot of the focus for you is in the detailing. With the projects you've been talking about, it's how things are put together, what resources and materials you're going to have, also sociologically speaking ...
DEBORAH: I think you touched on this when we talked about the bathrooms at Industria, how we had to stop the manufacturing process before everything got ruined by being over-processed. I'm interested in engaging with these things that are produced, because a house or a building becomes an assemblage of manufactured items.
PETER: Which I think is a good part of how you think of the everyday.
DB: Exactly. It's an assemblage of stuff. Stuff that's given to us in a relatively finished condition, so you intercede where you can to transform it, without taking away from its integrity as manufactured as opposed to hand-wrought. I love manufactured stuff, I love all those catalogs. I love the Thomas Register.
PETER: Perhaps, in the end, your book and your work are also about the conflicts and contradictions that come into forming an architecture of the everyday.
DEBORAH: Exactly. We can't try to make the everyday without running the risk of either ruining it or making something profoundly inferior to the genuine everyday. The everyday is this amorphous blob which we're just capturing for a moment as a source of inspiration and development of a philosophy. And the philosophy has a social aspect. That is, the everyday is accessible to all, and at whatever level you enjoy it or benefit from it, that's fine. Whether it's an extremely high level of appreciating a composition, or just the everyday citizen not being put off by a building that is intimidating by its aspirations.
PETER: So, if you're doing a facade of a public building, you wouldn't use marble because that connotes power?
DEBORAH: Right, and you wouldn't use marble in the shape of a Greek temple because that connotes even more power. Why, for the person who's going there to do their job, do you need to say that about their environment? That's just a simple example, and one of a multitude.
PETER: The last real knot here is the class position of the everyday. I mean, is the everyday, in intellectual or cultural terms, the ultimate in snobbery?
DEBORAH: That question scares me because there's truth in it. As an architect, you inevitably work with those who have power because they have access to capital, and it takes capital to build buildings. But even if your client is the one with the capital and the power, buildings have multiple constituencies. The people who use a building are one constituency, and passers-by are another. And it is your responsibility to engage them too, or at least not abuse them.